What Box-office Hit 'Black Panther' Means for Hollywood's Future

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Letitia Wright in a scene from 'Black Panther.'
Letitia Wright in a scene from 'Black Panther.' Credit: Matt Kennedy / Disney / Marvel S

Even before it arrived in movie theaters, “Black Panther” had become an exciting social and political phenomenon. The trailers thrilled viewers; advance ticket sales broke records in comparison to other Marvel Comics films. At the Hollywood premiere, a standing ovation – of the kind that is auspicious for a film’s first encounter with an audience – broke out before the first frame appeared on the screen.

Indeed, the film is a jolting experience for any audience. It’s not that black actors haven’t starred in Hollywood blockbusters before (the latest outstanding example being John Boyega in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), or that Hollywood hasn’t provided a platform for black superheroes (“Blade,” “Hancock”). But to watch a movie in which millions of dollars stream across the screen in almost every scene, and to see a cast made up of black actors (apart from two white actors whose solitariness only accentuates their exceptionality) is a breathtaking experience. And that emotion immediately hurls into viewers’ faces the bitter truth about a Hollywood that is ruled by white men, who until now never considered investing this amount of money in an all-black film.

And when to this is added the fact that the filmmaker is also African-American, and that the story depicts not only a black superhero but also an African culture and society that is strong, rich, proud, maintains full gender equality, is technologically advanced yet still connected to traditional African cultural symbols, the effect is only heightened.

If “Wonder Woman” offered an empowering feminine experience with the kind of force and budget that had been missing from the screen until now, and thereby broke both box office records and many hearts, “Black Panther” at long last supplies the same integrative deal for blacks, too.

Identity boost

This is not just a movie about superheroes, it’s a “cultural spearhead,” as the legendary basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who in recent years has been researching and writing about black history and culture, noted in a February 15 article in The Hollywood Reporter. If whites emerge from viewing the film with a higher regard for Africa and the cultural roots of the blacks in America, blacks, he writes, come out with a feeling of gratitude for their African heritage and with a superhero with whom black children can identify.

“It’s a little like witnessing the unveiling of an enormous statue on the public square – with the public square being the world – of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela dressed in bright dashikis. It’s an homage to who we were, a celebration of who we are and an inspiration for what we hope to become,” Jabbar wrote.

“Black Panther” is certainly an exciting and moving experience, but equally thrilling is the pleasurable sound of the box office. As always in Hollywood, finances are ultimately decisive. The critical and cultural success of “Black Panther” won’t be very meaningful if the cash doesn’t flow in and doesn’t justify more movies that will give the stage to women, blacks and to every hero and heroine who depart from the well-worn pattern of a white man who’s wonderful and terrific. This is both boring and infuriating, it’s hard to decide which feeling dominates.

The fact that “Wonder Woman” was a huge grosser in the United States and worldwide (revenues of more than $820 million) has already guaranteed a sequel starring the fighting Amazon and has compelled the big studios to acknowledge the box office potential of superhero movies starring women. And in fact, the producers of the next “Wonder Woman” flick, slated for release in 2019, have already promised Patty Jenkins the highest fee (believed to be $7 - 9 million) ever paid to a female director, thus marking a major milestone on the long road to gender equality in Hollywood. In addition, two more films with women in the lead roles are also planned next year: “Silver and Black,” which will be a “Spiderman” spinoff, and “Captain Marvel,” starring Brie Larson. Two other films, “Batgirl” and “Gothan City Sirens,” are also in the works.

From this point of view, in the meantime at least, “Black Panther” has definitely provided a promising opening. The movie took in an incredible $241.9 million over the four-day President’s Weekend, the second-highest gross income ever for an opening If that momentum is maintained over time and worldwide, Hollywood will have to start greenlighting more and more projects of black filmmakers with black casts and black-culture stories. Work on such projects that are already in development, like “Green Lantern Corps” and “Cyborg,” will undoubtedly be accelerated, and new projects will be more easily approved.

If the revenues for “Black Panther” justify the huge outlay involved in making it – $200 million for production, another $150 million for advertising – Hollywood will have to lay to rest the moldy argument that stories about women and blacks don’t hold enough interest for the masses. Non-white filmmakers and actors, along with actresses and female directors, will finally get to not only tell their stories but also be properly compensated, to providing empowering models for non-white boys and girls – models that have hitherto been all too rare.